If you’re a box purist, you’re going to hate this article, but seeing gyms continue to program shit that has no place for the majority of the clients and only takes people further away from their goals is just stupid. It’s time to stop projecting your goals onto your clients because 99.99 percent couldn’t care less about snatching or cleaning and jerking more weight — or even worse, performing 100 chest-to-bar kipping pull-ups. Moreover, if you’re spending what little time you have with your clients on a weekly basis trying to develop skills that will likely injure them or has no carryover to their goals, then you’re an asshole.
Remember that class you had in high school when you asked your teacher when you would use what you were learning in real life? And do you remember the BS answer your teacher gave you? This is no different. How is a 42-year-old soccer mom going to be more fit from 100 kipping pull-ups coupled with heavy full snatches?
Our model of group fitness programming attempts to align the program, the goals, and the needs with the MAJORITY of our clients. And the reason for their exclusion is simple: Many of the traditionalist exercises are too complex or are mismatches because most people's goals are to look better and live longer. A simplified program becomes more effective in eliciting the desired training effect while keeping clients happier and healthier as they work toward their goals.
If you want to train harder, stay healthier, and achieve superior results, it’s time to ride the wave and evolve the traditional box training model to better serve your goals, just as my 300+ box affiliates and 40,000 clients have over the last three years. Yes, you’ll incur some pushback at first, but let's remember that results are and will always be KING. Here are the top 20 smarter alternatives for traditional box exercises you should make to upgrade your programming.
1. Ditch Barbell Snatches — Do Dumbbell Snatches Instead
The dumbbell version of the hang snatch is incredibly easy to teach and much easier to execute when fatigue sets in. Unlike snatch variations that use a barbell, there is far less chance of injury because the dumbbell offers freedom of movement and highly asymmetries from left versus right. Plus, it’s much easier for the majority of your athletes to develop proficiency at this movement, which can be used for explosive strength work.
2. Ditch Pull-Ups — Do Rows Instead
Too many folks have weak upper backs, yet many gyms expose them to things like kipping and dead-hang pull-ups prematurely without even considering the horizontal row. This is ass-backward. Build their upper backs FIRST with a healthy dose of horizontal row variations WEEKLY. This is not to say that the pull-up is not important. However, don’t make the mistake of disproportionately stressing vertical pulling over horizontal rowing. Horizontal rowing should be programmed at least two times more than vertical pulling.
3. Ditch Muscle Ups — Do Direct Arm Work Instead
I don’t have to make much of a case to tell you that 99 percent of your clients will not benefit from muscle-ups, but what they will benefit from is direct arm work for both biceps and triceps. This work is easy to include in your programming and should serve as a mainstay in your plan.
4. Ditch the Free Squat — Do The Box Squat Instead
Squat variations have their place, but you’ll find the majority of your clients will benefit more from the box squat than the classic back squat. The reason is we can accomplish more than a few tasks by using a box to improve strength, power, and mobility, not to mention targeting those areas where most of your clients are weak: hips, gluteals, and hamstrings. Additionally, the box squat is much easier to recover from and is user-friendlier to those with knee issues. If your clients still aren’t great at squatting, the box squat can also serve as a teaching tool.
5. Ditch Barbell Conditioning — Do Sled Pushes Instead
If you’re looking for an easier way to have more people in your class feel included, the sled push is it. Competitors may love the specificity that barbell conditioning provides, but the sled push can attack the same energy sources, is easier to coach, will include more people who may not be great with cycling a barbell, and is far less likely to injure someone.
6. Ditch The Conventional Barbell Deadlift — Do The Sumo Deadlift Instead
All the bros love the conventional deadlift. But here’s the thing: the sumo deadlift brings the bar closer to the body, creating a better gravity line. Because of this, there is significantly less risk of a lower back injury. (In truth, this movement is actually closer to a squat than it is to a deadlift.) The sumo deadlift allows athletes to utilize more of their glutes, adductors, and hips, similar to the box squat.
7. Ditch High Skill Finishers — Do Low Skill Band Work Instead
Band work is easy to teach and perform, and the return on investment is huge! It can provide the much needed soft-tissue work your clients need as well. In our programming, it’s common to find a 100 to 200 rep post-training regimen of banded leg curls, pushdowns, and pull-aparts.
8. Ditch Daily Metcons — Do Strength-Only Days Instead
Your clients don’t need to lie dead on the mat after every single workout to make gains. In fact, they’ll likely be challenged more by a strength-only day. These should consist of no more than four exercises that allow for proper ramp-up sets before the actual work sets take place.
9. Ditch High Rep Bilateral Work — Do Sled Pull Powerwalking Instead
Similar to barbell conditioning, sled pull powerwalking allows us to crush the posterior chain, an area where most are weak, with zero risks of injury or delayed onset muscle soreness. Additionally, we can train the oxidative ability of fast-twitch fibers with the sled, which will translate to greater capacity in other events, such as a 5k run.
10. Ditch High-Intensity Workouts — Do Aerobic Workouts Instead
Your clients need fewer death workouts and more sustainable breathing workouts. People have enough stress outside the gym, so your high-intensity work needs to be properly planned. The truth is that aerobic work should make up the bulk of your plan. One way to ensure that people are monitoring their level of effort is by removing the clock or the score of a particular workout. This will reduce the perceived stress of having to compete against their peers and allow folks to focus on quality versus quantity.
11. Ditch Partner Saturday Workouts — Do Strongman Saturdays Instead
Partner workouts are a mainstay in our programming, but more and more gyms are arming themselves with strongman equipment. This is a great change for your clients and will help build their GPP, endurance, posture, and grip. Strongman workouts can consist of three to five stations that your clients rotate through at their own pace. This has become a favorite of our clients’ and the feedback is always quite positive.
12. Ditch Timed Workouts — Do Scoreless Workouts Instead
I’m all for keeping track of metrics, and while competition is certainly an advantage in boxes, it can also be seen as a disadvantage. The reason is people will sacrifice their bodies for another rep or to simply beat their friend in a workout – I’ve seen people do some pretty crazy shit for an extra rep. The solution? Program regular workouts that have no measure and allow people to focus on perfect movements. This also allows you to better manage the stress of our program design.
13. Ditch Barbell Overhead Movements — Do Dumbbells Instead
If you prioritize gymnastics work, it’s likely you’ve probably heard complaints of nagging shoulder pains from your clients. Instead of exacerbating these conditions, opt for the dumbbell variations for your overhead work, which allows a neutral grip, which tends to be more shoulder-friendly for most people – thus allowing for more development of the triceps.
14. Ditch Overhead Squats — Do Goblet Squats Instead
Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen more people unable to perform the overhead squat effectively instead of people who can actually safely and efficiently perform this movement. On the other hand, I’ve yet to encounter one person whom I could not teach the goblet squat to in less than five minutes. Again, if we’re trying to encompass the needs of the MAJORITY of our clients, the overhead squat should take a back seat to the goblet squat. Moreover, the goblet squat is an effective teaching tool for newbies, as the weight acts as a counterbalance.
15. Ditch Exclusive Bilateral Work — Do Unilateral Work Instead
To be clear, I’m not saying we are going to completely replace bilateral work with unilateral work, but we are going to make unilateral a priority so we can actually mitigate the risk of injury, not to mention add lean muscle mass. This will organically improve our bilateral variations. It’s all too common in boxes to see severely imbalanced people squatting or pulling with almost zero emphases on improving unilateral strength. You can’t build a house without a foundation, so this work should be done consistently.
16. Ditch The Barbell Overhead Press — Do The Floor Press Instead
It’s common to see overhead work at a box but less common to see horizontal pressing work. There is TOO MUCH overhead work as it is, but this can be remedied by changing the planes of the body with the floor press. The floor press is more effective at developing the triceps, an area where most are lacking, and can actually teach athletes how to rely on their triceps/lats with pressing movements and not their front deltoids.
17. Ditch Rebound Box Jumps — Do Step-Down Box Jumps Instead
Eliminate the chance of a soft-tissue injury (not to mention someone’s gnarly shin injury getting posted on social media), by making the step-down box jumps mandatory. Not only does this drastically reduce the risk of injury, but it can also help keep your clients’ heart rates at bay during a conditioning piece, thus allowing for better work output.
18. Ditch Handstands — Do Overhead Carries Instead
The overhead carry is a great way to build deltoid capacity, not to mention the core and aerobic systems. Many of your clients have zero desire to be inverted, and with a wide array of ability-levels in your box, you may have some who cannot be inverted for health reasons. Luckily, the overhead carry with either a dumbbell or kettlebell can be done by just about anyone.
19. Ditch GHD Sit-Ups — Do Front Rack Carries Instead
Our opinion is that the GHD sit-up should be banned from group fitness forever. The math is simple: Excessive range of motion of the lumbar spine + dynamic movement = high risk of injury. Instead, a front rack loaded carry can effectively train anterior core control and actually teaches folks how to brace their abs effectively.
20. Ditch Kipping Pull-Ups — Do Strict Pull-Ups Instead
Look, this debate has been beaten to death, but no one should be kipping until they can perform a strict pull-up. Would you put a 600-horsepower engine in a Prius? If you did, you’d definitely eff that car up, and you’d look like an asshole in the process. Build your clients’ capacity first, and THEN allow them to earn the right to perform higher-skill movements like kipping pull-ups.
The Results Will Speak For Themselves
The box purist will say this approach is lazy, but I’d challenge you to actually think about how much time you have your clients on a weekly basis. Do you really want to spend a chunk of that time with work that does NOT align with their goals and needs?
We could continue this list if we really wanted to; however, these swap-outs are certainly the most important in our plan. Give them a try for 12 weeks, and you’ll see what I mean. Oh, and your high-skill movements will improve, even though we haven’t performed them as much. The improved strength and symmetry gained from these substitutions will carry over to many other areas of fitness.
Images courtesy of RX Photography